Let's get one thing out of the way before we get started: This is a list of the ten best restaurants in the Heights, as "the Heights" is defined by the Houston Heights Association. That means that restaurants outside of its boundaries -- north of Loop 610 West, west of North Shepherd, south of the Katy Freeway or east of Studewood/Airline Drive -- are automatically excluded.
This means that truly excellent restaurants such as Gatlin's, Hubcap Grill, El Gran Malo, Pappa Geno's and Rainbow Lodge didn't make the cut. But it also means that future lists such as "Top 10 Restaurants in Oak Forest/Garden Oaks" or "Top 10 Restaurants in Timbergrove" are forthcoming.
With that in mind, here are our picks for the top 10 restaurants in the Heights, proper, which still proved quite a challenge to select despite the small territory. If there's one thing the Heights is richer in than antique shops or bungalows, it's amazing food.
10. Carter & Cooley
The winner of our 2009 Best of Houston® award for Best Atmosphere, sandwich shop Carter & Cooley has been serving excellent BLTs, Reubens and warm honey ham and brie sandwiches for more than 20 years. The Simon Lewis building in which it's housed was erected in 1921 as Ward's Drugs and has been lovingly restored by owner Neil Sackheim. Eat your corned beef on dark Bentwood chairs under a pressed tin ceiling and enjoy the sense of being lost a few decades back in the Heights' history.
A small, unassuming, family-run place in the Heights, El Gallo de Jalisco is one of the few joints left in the increasingly restaurant-saturated area that's remained ungentrified. It's still cash-only, and very limited English is spoken inside, but you'll also find wonderfully authentic tacos, tortas and perhaps one of the finest chicken mole plates in town. Interestingly, the homemade salsas aren't at all spicy, but they taste great with basket of warm chips and a cold glass of jamaica.
BRC Gastropub chef and owner Lance Fegen shows off his Cajun side at Liberty Kitchen, an oyster bar that manages to feel like Louisiana and New England at the same time. The relaxed restaurant is perfect for slurping down East Coast oysters over local brews (which is why we gave Liberty Kitchen a 2012 Best of Houston® award for Best Raw Bar) or enjoying a huge bowl of gumbo topped with fried oysters. Other big winners: burgers made from fresh-ground beef that taste like upscale Big Macs and shakes made with tangy custard from dessert spot Petite Sweets.
7. Triple A
Here's how you do a Saturday morning right: Grab a chicken fried steak plus eggs, grits and homemade biscuits at Triple A, with an extra side of cream gravy for those biscuits and a neverending cup of diner coffee. Relish the sassy waitresses and the worn-down marks in the linoleum that signal decades of customers' feet wearing away the spots beneath the stools at the long, low counter. Walk it all off next door at the massive Canino's farmers market as you stock up on fresh produce. Reward yourself for a morning well done with a bag full of just-baked pastries at El Bolillo across the street. Nap. Congratulations, you've won Saturday.
This wonderfully festive, colorful and inexpensive neighborhood place has a spacious covered patio, efficient waitstaff and large portions of some of the best Tex-Mex in Houston. As an added bonus, it's easy to find: Just look for the brightest pinkest restaurant you've ever seen. The green tomatillo salsa, charro beans and thick, handmade corn tortillas are awesome, as are its daily breakfasts. But it's the grilled items like fajitas and shrimp, the cheap but strong margaritas and the singularly spectacular snapper al cilantro that keep us coming back week after week.
5. Zelko Bistro
We gave Zelko Bistro the 2010 Best of Houston® award for Best Comfort Food with good reason: This cozy converted house in the Heights offers everything comfort food should be. It's inexpensive, well-made, thoughtfully presented, delicious food from childhood served with a warm smile. Zelko Bistro also happens to serve one of the finest burgers anywhere -- The Boss Burger -- and desserts you thought you'd never find on a chef-driven restaurant's menu: funnel cake and banana splits. An elegantly constructed wine and beer list with seriously affordable prices and a hidden garden-style patio have made Zelko one of the most welcome additions to the Heights in years.
4. Asia Market (Disclaimer: Asia Market is half a block "outside" of the Heights, just barely east of Airline on Cavalcade. I'm letting it slide on this technicality.)
Why does Asia Market consistently top Houston chefs' lists of their favorite places to eat in Houston? The low prices and deep authenticity factor in, but the real draw is the firecracker food (even if it's only farang, or "foreigner" spicy). Along with Vieng Thai, Asia Market offers the best Thai food you'll find in Houston with dishes such as som tum (green papaya salad) and Kang Massam curry as some of our favorites. For something really adventurous, Chris Shepherd recommends ordering the off-menu "black eggs."
You may not realize it, but Revival Market sells complete meals in addition to all the fixings to make your own meal at home. Like everything else in Ryan Pera and Morgan Weber's shop, all of the food is made entirely with local products like Weber's own pigs and vegetables from area farmers. The Asian-inspired duck slaw is a standout, as are simple items like pickled carrots. Hot dogs made from Weber's Mangalitsa pigs on Slow Dough buns are a can't-miss, and sure to please the kids, too. Eat in the small but bright cafe inside or take your meal into the fresh air on the cozy patio.
Claire Smith's flagship Heights restaurant keeps it light and casual, but its occasionally Asian-inflected dishes don't skimp on flavor, like grilled quail stuffed with venison sausage and cabbage or a sautéed red snapper with Napa slaw and a red curry-coconut broth. The bar hosts a great happy hour during the week, with classic cocktails served alongside favorites like fried shrimp and bacon-cheese grits topped with Frank's Red Hot sauce. Shade was one of the first upscale-casual restaurants to open in the Heights (remember when it was an antique store cafe?) and nearly a decade later it's still one of the area's strongest restaurants.
1. Down House
It seems like years ago that I reviewed Down House and found it wanting. These days, the ultimate "useful" restaurant has almost completely transformed itself into a lean, mean food-making machine. Breakfast is served nearly all day. It's a competition to decide which is better: the coffee or the cocktails. The beer list is constantly shifting to match the ever-evolving lunch/dinner menu of mostly local foods. The atmosphere invites you to have a quick bite or linger at one of the marble-topped bistro tables all day long. Down House is anything you want it to be -- and although many restaurants fail miserably when trying to be something to everybody, Down House is an excellent example of a place that mostly manages to get it all right.
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Check out our other Top 10 neighborhood lists:
Top 10 in Montrose Top 10 in Rice Village Top 10 on Washington Avenue Top 10 in the East End Top 10 in the Galleria Top 10 in Midtown Top 10 in Memorial Top 10 in Upper Kirby Top 10 in Greenway Plaza Top 10 in The Woodlands Top 10 in Spring Branch Top 10 in Little India Top 10 in Far Northwest Houston Top 10 in Chinatown